Menopause is a process that all women experience after a certain point in their lives. But even though it’s a normal part of life, you probably still have a lot of questions surrounding it. Menopause is different for each woman, and it can cause a wide range of symptoms and manifestations.
Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about menopause.
What is menopause?
Menopause isn’t a disorder — it’s simply a transition that happens when a woman stops having her periods and is thus unable to get pregnant naturally. According to the Mayo Clinic, menopause is diagnosed once you haven’t had any menstrual bleeding for 12 straight months.
The menopausal transition is marked by many different changes in your hormone levels, body processes, and even in your natural build. Menopause affects each woman differently, but most women will agree that they experienced at least some symptoms during this stage.
When does menopause start?
Menopause doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, this process starts gradually during a stage known as perimenopause. According to the Cleveland Clinic, perimenopause occurs when your body’s production of estrogen begins to decrease. Estrogen is the main female sexual hormone, and it regulates many different processes in a woman’s body.
According to the Endocrine Society, some of the functions of estrogen include:
- Regulates the menstrual cycle
- Breast growth
- Pubic and underarm hair growth
- Keeps cholesterol levels in check
- Protects bone health
- Affects your brain, heart, skin, and other parts of the body
Perimenopause can start as early as your mid- to late thirties, or even during your mid-fifties. Its duration can also vary greatly. On average, most women are in menopause for 4 to 8 years, and the average menopause age in the United States is 51 years old. These statistics also vary depending on your ethnicity and family history. Some diseases and treatments — such as some types of chemotherapy and radiotherapy — can induce an early menopause. Women who need to have their ovaries removed also experience menopause as a result. Experiencing menopause before you reach the age of 40 is considered to be premature menopause.
During perimenopause, your estrogen and progesterone levels will gradually decrease as your ovaries produce smaller amounts of these hormones. Once you reach menopause, your sexual hormone levels will be too low to induce ovulation, so you won’t be able to get pregnant and will stop having menstrual cycles.
Symptoms of menopause
As we mentioned above, perimenopause and menopause can cause a wide range of symptoms that affect women differently. According to the National Institute on Aging, common symptoms of menopause can include:
- Irregular periods
- Heavier or lighter periods than normal
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Vaginal dryness
- Discomfort during sex
- Low libido
- Loss of bladder control or incontinence
- Trouble sleeping
- Muscle aches
- Stiff joints
- Weight gain
- Mood swings
- Thinning hair
- Dry skin
- Smaller or sagging breasts
- Memory or concentration problems
The hormonal changes that cause all these symptoms can also lead to an increased risk for certain conditions. Female sexual hormones play a role in protecting you from some diseases, and this protective effect is lost after menopause. According to the Office on Women’s Health, common health problems in postmenopausal women include:
- Heart disease: female hormones protect your cardiovascular system before menopause, and younger women typically have a lower risk of heart disease than men. But by the age of 70, men and women have the same risk of heart disease.
- Osteoporosis: estrogen protects your bone health, and lower estrogen levels cause you to lose bone mass faster than before. This increases your risk of osteoporosis and fractures.
- Stroke: after menopause, estrogen can’t help regulate your cholesterol levels anymore. As a result, a woman’s risk of stroke doubles each decade after turning 55.
- Oral health problems: menopause causes your mucous membranes to dry out, which can also affect your oral cavity. This can increase your risk of gum disease and cavities.
- Urinary incontinence: lower estrogen levels can cause your urethra to become weakened, which often leads to urinary urgency and incontinence.
Despite the fact that menopause is a natural process that all women experience after a certain age, there are certain treatments that can help you regulate the uncomfortable symptoms that it can cause. Menopause treatments can also help manage the risks associated with this stage of life.
According to the NHS, treatments for menopause can include:
- Hormone replacement therapy (HRT): this treatment is meant to replace the hormones that your body is no longer producing. HRT is available in many forms, including tablets, skin patches, implants, and gels. You should always seek medical guidance before starting HRT.
- Estrogen creams: these vaginal creams can relieve vaginal dryness and prevent vaginal atrophy.
- Therapy: going through menopause can bring about a lot of emotional changes, and therapy can provide support and strategies to help you manage them.
Keep in mind that the fact that you can’t get pregnant after menopause doesn’t mean that you can’t get an STD. It’s still important for menopausal women to get tested for STDs, especially if you’ve recently had unprotected sex with a new partner. You can learn more about STD testing at STDWatch.com.